The Interview Issue: Veteran health care exec Mansue talks about transition to Inspira in midst of COVID pandemic, how she hopes to serve South Jersey — and how she works with other leaders

Amy Mansue, CEO, Inspira Health

The Inspira Health Network is comprised of three medical centers and two health centers located in the South Jersey counties of Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester. They are all a short distance from Cooper University Health Care in Camden and the major health systems in Philadelphia.

Amy Mansue is determined to keep them at a polite distance.

Mansue, who took over as CEO in September, came to Inspira from one of the state’s two huge systems: RWJBarnabas Health. And, while she enjoyed her time there, she said she has no interest in having Inspira following the recent trends and becoming part of a health care super-system.

The reason, she said, is simple: The communities are better served this way.

“It’s critical for our communities to continue to remain independent, because nobody’s going to love Cumberland and Salem and Gloucester the way we do,” she said. “These are tough communities in terms of their poverty levels and some of the challenges they face. Being part of a large system and risking that those counties might be disenfranchised in some way is not something we’re willing to do. 

“What we’ve committed to is this: Making the best for everybody. We want to be the best community hospital we can possibly be and be the best single provider for the services that we can provide — and then link to others when people have a need for higher tertiary care.

“That may mean we have some relationships with Cooper, some relationships with others, and that’s OK, as long as that is getting the people in our community what they need. I think the real vision is making sure that we serve the community. And I think the real opportunity is to move the bar on the health outcomes of our communities and really understand, at a very different level, what it means to be engaged in that work.”

Mansue obviously came to Inspira in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — and in the middle of her role as the Central Jersey hospital coordinator for Gov. Phil Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

It’s just one of the many reasons we were happy to have Mansue be a part of the ROI-NJ Interview Issue, our annual give-and-take with some of the top leaders in the state. Here’s a look at the conversation, which was condensed and edited for length and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the beginning of COVID. Talk about what you were doing at the start of the pandemic.

Amy Mansue: I was (the chief experience officer) at Barnabas, working on patient experience and employee engagement. During COVID, a big focus was on staff: How do we make sure they have the resources to manage what they’re seeing? 

When you look at behavioral health, post-disasters, you can see the progression: There’s a period where people get really excited and have a full adrenaline rush as they see the storm coming. And then, after they’ve hit the worst, if they don’t find a way to manage through that emotion of what’s happened and all that they’ve seen, they’re going to hit the bottom. 

So, I spent a good part of my time with my team at Barnabas trying to set up a whole cadre of support groups and trainings to be ready for when people really started to understand that.

ROI: Then, the state appointed you to be the coordinator for the hospitals in Central Jersey, one of three such coordinators. What was that like? 

AM: The (New Jersey) Hospital Association really deserves tremendous credit for keeping all of us galvanized. After we broke the state into three parts, all the hospitals within that region would try and coordinate and communicate. We put their questions through, so the commissioner wouldn’t get 72 people calling her. And I think that worked very well. We had the Office of Emergency Management, the three regional people, the Department of Health, some of the Governor’s Office folks and all of experts on daily calls.

There was a level of collegiality and partnership that you can’t even begin to understand. For all intents and purposes, it was a MASH unit. We were trying to move 50 beds from one place to another. Find ventilators. We had patients that couldn’t get care because one hospital was full, so we were trying to move them to another hospital. There were so many things we were trying to make happen.

Mansue’s favorite New Jerseyan

“I have been blessed with so many people who have made an impact in my life, so I have to name three people: Jim Florio: first job, first everything. When I interned for him in 1987 in D.C., it opened so many doors. Hazel Gluck: She was the commissioner of transportation. She was the lottery commissioner. She was somebody who took me under her wing — really, by the scruff of my neck — when I was just 20. She was a huge influence. And, then, Gov. (Brendan) Byrne. He was just a tremendous soul. He always could find a way to create humor, as well as do really amazing policy. And he always put everybody at ease.”

Mansue’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“I would say Asbury Park. I had the privilege of living right outside of Asbury Park for three years, and it’s the best of all of it. You can go spend a boatload of money at Pascal & Sabine’s. You can hit the Stone Pony. You can walk on the beach. You can do all of it. I just love it. I love its diversity. I love the food. I love the people. So, that would be my best of New Jersey.”

Of course, the real credit goes to the health care workers. At the beginning of this, we didn’t know anything about COVID: We didn’t know how it was spread, we didn’t know what the best practices were, we were learning on the fly. And they were on the front lines. We were trying to get them real-time information.

ROI: Hospitals have an interesting business model. They are nonprofits, do a tremendous amount of charity care — and, yet, there is an intense competition for business. Talk about coming together and working as a group.

AM: There always was a level of collegiality, because we always come together and work out public policy issues. This is a whole new level. For instance, last night, I was texting one of my colleagues saying: ‘You set up this 60-bed ICU on the fly, how did you do that? What can you tell me about it? I need there to be a lot more detail than the view from 30,000 feet.’ Lori Herndon, from AtlantiCare, talked about how important it was in the spring to be able to call people in Bergen County and say, ‘OK, tell me what you’re seeing, what I need to prepare for.’ On another call, Ed Condit from St. Mary’s was like, ‘We’re seeing young people coming in with a virus; here’s what you’re going to need.’ 

The candor we have is just different, more urgent. We have a joint venture with Cooper, which is a great partner and obviously a great resource for southern New Jersey. But, even my dialogue with (co-CEO) Kevin O’Dowd, who I have known for a long time, is at a much different level. It’s like, ‘OK, I need to get to this; you need to help me with this.’ We don’t have time for all the gratuities, it’s like, ‘Go … what … now … tell me.’ And I think that, in the long run, will be helpful for all of us. And, most importantly, I hope it’s helpful for our patients. 

This is all about public safety. We see what’s happening in our place, we don’t want it to happen in your place. We want you to be better prepared than we are. 

I do believe that the level of cooperation and collaboration will be different moving forward. There’s a camaraderie and a bond for people who go through war. You see it all the time. Men and women who would never otherwise come together have these lifelong relationships. And I really equate it to that. This is our war, and this enemy is this virus. 

ROI: Talk more about Inspira. What is it like to take over as CEO in the middle of the biggest health crisis of our time? Where do you even begin?

AM: You have to understand, Inspira has a rich history of very good leaders: John DiAngelo, Chet Kaletkowski, Paul Cooper, Eileen Cardile. These are people of incredible stature. And each of them, while they have very different personalities, were very direct with what they wanted and how they got it done. I think that there’s a theme of that, because I certainly have tried to be polite, but direct, in my life. 

I think part of the challenge here is that I had been at RJWBarnabas for 17 years, and John (DiAngelo, the retiring CEO) had been here for 20. You get a cadence with people. You know each other, you know how everyone is going to act. So, I have the privilege and the honor to be down here and have the chance to be part of this amazing team, but they don’t know me, and I don’t know them. It’s all happening really fast.

ROI: And happening in a tight-knit area.

If you were business czar for a day, what would you do?

“I think putting people in other people’s shoes for a month would be a good idea. I think the opportunity for people in business to actually see how hard it is to run government would be great. It’s a huge business. People are quick to say, ‘Government’s inefficient — it’s this, it’s that.’ But, when you’re on the outside, you have no idea how difficult it is on the inside. How every single day, any number of things could blow up and take you off your message and off your focus.

“And, at the same time, I would say to government officials: ‘If you actually haven’t had an opportunity to run the things that you’re regulating, you shouldn’t be doing it. Because you have no idea how hard this actually can be — living within regulations, living within the competition, living within the consumer demand.’

“Everybody underestimates how tough the other side has it. Having had the privilege of sitting on both sides of this, it is very humbling to really get the breadth and depth of it.”

AM: South Jersey is a world unto itself. You have very close long-term relationships. People stay for long periods of time. People who didn’t grow up here, even if they’ve been here a long time, are still seen as outsiders. So, I think there’s a little bit of the outsider thing.

What I really want the staff to hear over and over again is how grateful we are for all that they’ve done, how grateful we are for all they’re going to do. And to know that one of the board’s charges to me, and how I live my life, is being transparent. Good or bad, I’m going to give it to you straight.

ROI: Talk more about the community the Inspira system serves — and the role each facility can play.

AM: It’s important to remember that the first hospital that formed what is now the Inspira system began in 1899. This is a long, rich history in these communities, some of which are very rural and very poor. And the health needs of the people in those communities are significant. 

We have made a commitment over that 100 years to not only be their health care provider, but also to be partners with them in the community. I think about the Millville Child Family Center. This is a group that was serving about six to 10 families pre-COVID. Now, they’re serving 300 a month. We’ve partnered with them to make sure that they can continue to do that. We need to be that that pillar in the community. 

ROI: How deep can Inspira’s relationships go?

AM: When you go to your doctor and you have an illness or an issue, think about how important it is to have the kind of trust that says, ‘Yeah, I’m all in, and I’m going to improve my health, because I know you’re my partner in this, and you’re going to walk with me in this journey.’ That’s a whole lot different than, ‘Hey, I’ll just go there for care.’ 

I think we’re really looking to take it to that next level, to let our community know that, no matter what happens in their life, we want to be there. 

Our board is made up of men and women who have committed their lives to Inspira and to the predecessor organizations and to these communities. That’s the beauty of nonprofit hospitals. And that’s the beauty of what we see in New Jersey: People are completely invested in making sure that their local hospital can be the best it can be and really do right for the community. 

ROI: What’s best for the community right now is finding a way to fight against COVID-19. You called it a war. Where do you see that battle now?

AM: We’re blessed in that the state has done so much to give us predictive analytics that we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a downside to that, because we know exactly what’s coming. The next couple of weeks and months may be the hardest.

There’s no silver bullet. We would have used it already. But I think that part of what makes us Jersey is we have tough talks with each other, we rumble in the arena, if you will, and then we come out the other side stronger. That’s what I’m looking forward to, the stronger piece.